WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden on Friday signed a decree directing the declassification of certain documents relating to terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a supportive gesture to the families of victims who have long searched the records in hopes of implicating Saudi – Arab government.
The announcement, which comes just over a week before the 20th anniversary of the attacks, is an important moment in a years-long battle between the government and the families over what classified information about the prelude to the attacks could be published. This conflict was shown last month when about 1,800 relatives, survivors and first aiders found out that Biden participated in 9/11 memorial events if the documents remained declassified.
“The important events in question took place two decades ago or more, and they relate to a tragic moment that continues to resonate in American history and in the lives of so many Americans,” the statement said. “It is therefore crucial to ensure that the US government maximizes transparency and relies on classification only when it is narrowly adapted and necessary.”
The executive order calls on the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies to begin a declassification investigation and calls for declassified documents to be released within the next six months.
Nevertheless, the practical effect of the executive order and any new documents it might provide was not immediately clear. Previous investigations have outlined ties between Saudi nationals and some of the hijackers, but have not established that the government was directly involved.
A lengthy lawsuit in federal court in New York claims that Saudi officials provided significant support to some of the hijackers before the attacks and aim to hold the kingdom accountable. The Saudi government has denied any connection to the attacks.
The families have long claimed that Saudi officials played more of a direct role than the US government has publicly said, referring in part to the fact that the first two hijackers who arrived in the US prior to the attack were welcomed and helped by a Saudi diplomat. They have long accused the government of stoning their demands for documents and on Thursday called on the Justice Department inspector general to investigate the FBI’s apparent inability to find a photograph, video and other records they are looking for.
The Department of Justice revealed last month that the FBI had recently completed an investigation into certain 9/11 hijackers and potential accomplices, and that it would now work to see if it could share information it had previously determined it could not revealed.
Under the terms of the order, the FBI must complete its declassification of documents from the probe, which it has referred to as a “sub-file investigation,” by 9/11.
Over the next six months, the executive order states that for the purpose of declassification, the government should review all interview reports, documents with survey results, any telephone and bank records, other interview reports and other information seen as potentially relevant to the attacks.
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